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Few cyclists can understand the tangled emotions of a silver medal quite like Katie Compton.
If Saturday’s second-place finish in the UCI World Cyclocross Championships were her first podium appearance, it would have been a triumph. But, no, it was her fourth silver medal over a long career of ups and downs. Yet Compton will leave Valkenburg, the Netherlands with few regrets. This was the most difficult cyclocross world championships in recent memory with heavy mud on a hilly track, and she was up against Sanne Cant, a rival Compton deems the best female cyclocross world champion ever.
“She’s probably the strongest and most well-rounded world champion we’ve had,” Compton (Trek-Knight Composites) told VeloNews. “She wins in sand. She wins in mud. She wins on fast courses. She wins early season, late season.”
And Compton is an authority on the canon of world beaters. Eleven years ago, when Sanne Cant was 16, Katie Compton won her first silver medal at UCI World Cyclocross Championships at Hooglede-Gits, Belgium.
Since that day in 2007, where she tangled with two Frenchwomen and ended up second — barely — to Maryline Salvetat, Compton collected three other medals, facing stars such as Marianne Vos and Hanka Kupfernagel along the way.
However, Compton’s history with worlds is just as much about bad luck and health issues as it is near misses on the medal stand.
A year after her breakthrough worlds ride, Compton withdrew from the 2008 championships in Treviso, Italy with debilitating, cramp-like leg pains. The same mysterious ailment forced her to abandon 2010 worlds after one lap in Tabor, Czech Republic.
Her worlds misfortunes haven’t been limited to health struggles, which also included hypothyroidism and asthma. In 2014, she looked like an outright favorite, coming off her second consecutive World Cup series win, and a silver medal at Louisville Worlds. Early on, Compton tangled with Pavla Havlikova and never saw the front of the race.
Although Compton’s 2017-2018 season was one of her best, the final World Cup in Hoogerheide, less than a week before worlds, raised concerns.
Compton started slowly as she often does — a characteristic that has given her trouble at many big races. Then she flatted. But worse still, she had an asthma attack, plummeting from fifth at one point to 22nd.
“I was frustrated with myself for a couple days but then I let it go,” she said. “This [worlds ] course is night and day compared to last weekend.”
The muddy mess of the Valkenburg course played to her strengths. She had a decent start then set about moving from top-10 to top-five, to right on Cant’s wheel in second.
Although the Belgian was a faster runner in the slop, Compton was finding time here and there, growing her lead with skillful cornering and consistency. As the bell rang for the final lap, she had an eight-second lead.
“I was just trying to focus on the race and the last lap and the lines,” Compton said. “Honestly, I wasn’t thinking about being in the lead.”
Then, as is sometimes the case in ‘cross, things changed not with a catastrophe, but with a slight error. Compton had to dismount early and run through the entire pit on the last lap. Cant took her pit bike at the start of the pit, then caught and passed the American.
“I don’t think we picked the right pit box in hindsight,” Compton said. “That was good pit box when the course was dry.”
With fatigue already building, the extra effort of running farther put Compton into the red. Cant slipped away. “I would say my first three laps were much better than my last lap,” Compton said. “That’s what my body gave me today.”
So was she frustrated by another near-miss at worlds, on a day when the course seemed ideal for her diesel power and handling skills?
“I’m getting really good at getting second,” she said, flashing her wry sense of humor. “I’m okay with that. I did the best I could — I couldn’t have gone any harder.”
After the race, Cant told television broadcasters that it was the toughest race of her career. Compton agreed when asked later.
“It was hard I have to say. It’s probably one of the hardest world championships I’ve raced,” Compton said. “I’m glad I made Sanne work for it, I’m glad she was struggling as much as I was.”
Like any competitive athlete, Compton would rather be packing a rainbow jersey in her luggage when she flies home to Colorado in a week, following the final round of the DVV Trofee (which she’s on track to win). But the perspective that comes with a long career — back to her first national championship win in 2004 — quells any regrets.
“This one feels as good as my first silver medal in 2007. Mainly because I had a good race,” she said. “I’m just happy I won my first medal 11 years ago, and I’m still on the podium at world championships. I’m pretty happy with that consistency.”